Just yesterday I received a Little League notice in my inbox. Registration is happening now, opening day has been scheduled, and I’ve already calendared our mandatory “field clean up day.” Mr. Red is all signed up to coach our oldest son, and my body feels warmer just thinking about baseball.
Every year since my childhood, the beginning of baseball season was such a hopeful time. The world was coming out of its dark slumber. Birds were in the air, tulips were blooming, and the Phillies were getting ready for opening day. For many years the Phillies were just plain awful, but Opening Day was always filled with joy and hope. “This year things could be different, and even if they aren’t, it’s spring.”
Now, as a mother, I have this same joyful anticipation of little league season (and spring soccer!). The days will be longer, the air warmer, and those playgrounds are waiting!
And yet, I realize that youth sports with a larger family can present it’s own set of challenges. Late evenings on the ball field and cranky toddlers don’t mix. Dinners at the snack stand leave everyone feeling yucky. And then there is the unpredictable rain.
So here is our guide for surviving and thriving in youth sports.
1) Don’t start too soon. I know 4 year olds in t-ball uniforms are super cute, but resist the temptation. Youth sports are a commitment for the whole family, and kids have many years to participate. Rec. programs are beginning at younger and younger ages, which can be hard for larger families. For the extreme extrovert this can be a nice way to get some cute pictures and meet members of your community, BUT an early start often leads to burnout for Mom and Dad (and for more intense sports, burnout for the kids). Most youth sports should not begin until age 5 or 6, and with baseball, I’d consider waiting until age 6 or 7. Work with your budding athlete in the backyard for a season or two first, it will make everyone a whole lot happier if you delay that first game just an extra year.
2) Get involved! Have Dad help coach or volunteer yourself! Sign up to bring a snack. Invite the team over for a party. Do something to invest in the team and the community. You will feel a lot happier if you help to create a nice environment for your child. We had Gianna’s soccer team over for a bonfire, and it was really a great time.
3) Remember that youth sports are about character. Even skill development is about virtues such as perseverance and a willingness to take correction. Notice the virtues, not just the end result. If you tend to be competitive, pray for the grace to see sports as a lifelong learning experience. Playing a sport and learning to push your body are important parts of a child’s education.
4) Always eat before you leave. Most youth sports are after work/school, and the family should eat before arriving. Buying unhealthy snacks and eating junk at the field might be ok for one night, but it sets kids up for bad behavior, AND makes them think that baseball or soccer is about eating, not playing. Try to make the time at the ball field about the sport, and the playground (for the spectator siblings). If you have to rearrange your afternoons to eat an early dinner, do it.
5) Enlist the help of grandparents. If you have local grandparents, ask for their help! We try to have our parents help out one night per week, and on those nights, I stay home with younger kids. This breaks up the week and allows local grandparents to play an important role in your child’s experience. Consider child-care one evening per week if family isn’t local. Or ask Dad to commit to one night per week of driving. Mr. Red will often bring work home for later in the evening. This makes him available for rides, making the season much more enjoyable.
6) Have a plan for rain and cancelled practices. If you eat early, a cancelled practice or game should be seen as a night off. Take the kids somewhere fun if you are all dressed and ready to leave or stay home and have a family game or movie night.
7) Ask for help with rides. Offer to carpool and don’t feel badly about asking for help, especially when the schedule has been altered because of weather. If a make-up game falls on a day of the week that isn’t set up for sports, offer to drop the child off and have the coach give that child a ride home. Or, if even that is too difficult, skip that one night because it was not on the original schedule. You should not feel stressed about missing a sporting event for a 6 year old child!
8) Teach your child to be responsible for his or her own equipment. Make sure there is a system for equipment and put the child in charge of it. Our kids pack their own bags and carry a checklist to make sure no items are forgotten. We take time at the beginning of each season to get a good system for all equipment. If possible, purchase extra socks if there are games more than one day per week.
9) Resist the temptation for extra camps and more competitive programs unless your child is really ready. Burnout is a huge problem these days. The trend seems to be specialization at earlier and earlier ages. Resist it. Don’t let your child quit other things to focus on baseball at the age of 7. There will come a time for specialization, travel programs and extra camps, but it isn’t at the age of 6 or 7. All these things are expensive and can lead to burn out if your child is too young. Don’t commit too soon. Remember, most kids get better in their own backyard, and there is nothing wrong with being middle of the pack because you aren’t ready to focus on one sport.
10) Savor the priceless moments. Going to little league games may seem like a burden now, but imagine yourself 10 years from now, when your children are driving themselves to countless activities. You’ll long for these simple times where you could sit at a ball field on a beautiful spring day and watch your son in his little league uniform have fun playing ball with his friends. Every once in a while, just pause and savor the moment. This time won’t last forever, but the memories will.
And if you are still feeling burned out by the last few weeks of the season, don’t worry! Most parents are ready to wrap things up by May.